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How to Experiment Well

August 25, 2020 • De Pree Journal

We need to be careful not to think that, once we develop a new idea, we are done learning. Lots of experimentation goes into creating a new prototype. But there is also a lot of learning that happens once we start to test that prototype. Because the measure of success for our endeavors is the degree to which they resonate with the people entrusted to our care, we cannot know how successful they will be until we have seen how our people receive them.

This is how innovative organizations like Google operate. Google intentionally releases new products to their users before the products have all the small details set. (They do lots of beta testing before shipping but know that the product cannot be completed until the customers have worked with it.) Google does this in the name of the user. They know that they will never be able to anticipate fully how a user will want to use a product. So they release the product before the concrete has hardened, as it were, so that they can easily adapt the product to the feedback that Google assiduously collects. They call the process “ship and iterate.”

The important idea here is that Google cannot follow the artist’s process of prototyping because Google measures its purpose according to its audience’s reception. In the humanities, we know that the audience will make its own interpretation. But that is not the artist’s problem. Artists create what they want to express: their process is not really connected to how the audience receives it. Google cannot do that—and neither can we in the church. Google’s entire goal is to connect to its audience. So a product that excites Google will be discontinued if it does not connect with the audience. At Google, innovation is an iterative conversation with its users. In the same way, Christian innovation must create an ongoing conversation with the people entrusted to our care: our goal is to create the kind of spiritual meaning that helps people see their daily lives in a new light.

There is another example of how to follow the people entrusted to your care. Think of a school district that builds a new high school. I would have thought that the district is not ready to open the school until, say, the sidewalks of the school have been paved. But in the last decades, I am told that architects and builders have followed a different course. They put up the buildings. Then they open the school without paving all the sidewalks that connect the buildings. They see where the students walk. And that is where they eventually lay the sidewalks. You see, the builders got tired of guessing wrong. They would make a plan for where the students should walk and lay the new sidewalks according to the plans. Then in the first year, they would watch in dismay as the students walked on the grass between buildings. Now the builders wait to see where the students will walk, and that is where they put the sidewalks.

It is a wonderful metaphor. As Christian leaders, we cannot change the buildings we construct. Every high school needs a chemistry lab and a history classroom. And every Christian program needs to talk about the resurrection of Jesus and the call to daily discipleship. Those are set in concrete. But how we connect them—the pathways between them—are not yet paved. We need to work with our people as we decide where the sidewalks should go.

There are many more ideas that we can learn about experimentation. But perhaps the best way to encounter them is as a list.

  1. Learn from mistakes. Most leaders hide from their mistakes. We bear a tremendous responsibility to learn from our mistakes because our experiments involve real, live human beings.
  2. Morph new ideas; don’t kill them. We give up on new ideas too soon. The next time something goes poorly, ask yourself how it can change. Then try again.
  3. Retire projects that have run their course. Just as we give up on new ideas too soon, we tend to keep old ministry projects too long. Is there something that you are doing solely because you have always done it?
  4. Celebrate the team that fails. We tend to stigmatize the group that fails because they did not accomplish the goal. But what if we stigmatized NASA because Apollo 1 did not make it to the moon? Celebrate the process and the courage that it took to try.
  5. Train good people. Train them and trust them. In the business world, that is about hiring. But in the church world, we deal with volunteers. Training is far more important than recruitment. Good people are trained rather than found.
  6. Try soft openings. Restaurants invite friends before they open to the public. Then when they open to the public, they practice for a few weeks before having a grand opening.
  7. Avoid experiments in the worship service. A worship service is the most public part of a church’s life. It is also the place with the most competing commitments. Experimenting in the worship service is signing up to make your rookie mistakes in public.

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